After almost 50 years as a professional musician, country-rock star Chris Hillman has released a live retrospective of some of his greatest moments, along with his friend and collaborator of more than 45 years, Herb Pederson. They take a no-nonsense approach to the material that simultaneously shows its earthiness and elegance. That’s not an easy task, considering Hillman’s pedigree as a founding member of such seminal groups as the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and more recently, the Desert Rose Band. Songs like “Turn, Turn, Turn”, “Eight Miles High”, “Sin City”, and others have become iconic in their original form. But Hillman and company succeed at paying homage to these and other songs from his past without being overly earnest or reflective through their nimble fingerings and plaintive vocals.
The result is that one wants to hear these versions again, rather than replay the original renditions. That’s quite a feat, as these songs were played live in a barn in Nipono, California, as a benefit for a local church, not for archival reasons, and reveals Hillman’s talents as a mandolin player and singer and Pederson’s abilities on acoustic guitar. The duo are capably joined by guitarist Larry Park, fiddler David Mansfield, and bassist Bill Bryson, musicians with whom they have shared the stage with for many years.
The 15 songs here are played roughly in chronological order from Hillman’s past, and reveals his range of talents, though he does add two new songs, the bilingual “Tu Cancion” and the playful Western “The Cowboy Way”. The fact that these two songs fit in so seamlessly with the others reveals Hillman’s songwriting talents. It’s a testament in that they equally share the stage with some of the Byrds’ and Flying Burrito Brothers’ best songs, such as “Have You Seen Her Face” and “Wheels”, which are both offered here.
Hillman, Pederson, and company also perform breathtaking covers of old-time country hits in the Louvin Brothers’ “If I Could Only Win Your Love” and Buck Owens‘s “Together Again”, songs associated somewhat with Hillman’s old partner, Gram Parsons. It’s no dig against Parsons to note that Hillman doesn’t need him here. His new partners shine just as brightly on these tunes. The songs come off as poignant and playful in the present as better known versions from the past.
Country rock has always had a love hate relationship with the historical. By definition, the music harkens to an earlier time. That’s been part of its charm and why country rock has been most popular at times of national crises. When the future looks bleak and uncertain, one looks back for inspiration. Today, mainstream country has incorporated rock and roll so that the sounds of the Zac Brown Band, Keith Urban, Taylor Swift, or Brad Paisley resemble the rock hits of the ‘60s with a twang more than traditional Nashville. Meanwhile, the interest in Americana and alt-country seem to be at an all-time low. The audience for country rockers like Hillman and Pederson is more of a cult than a mass of listeners, despite the fact that their fingerprints can be found on so much music today because of their past work. The fact that these guys still kick butt offers hope for a better tomorrow, showing that some things just improve with age.